This article will explore the widespread belief that e-books and online content is environmentally more friendly than hard copy paper books. First, however lets take a look at the history of technology.
The invention and adoption of every technology is a response to a problem that existed in the past. Today, we tout the coming age of (clean energy powered) electric or hybrid cars as solution to reducing the fossil fuel consumption, air pollution and CO2 emissions caused by internal combustion engine powered cars. The car however was itself a response to an even earlier environmental problem – the vast amounts of manure on city streets caused by the horse and buggy.
At the time of the invention of the internal combustion engine, no one considered CO2 emissions or climate change to be a problem. This illustrates the law of unintended consequences. We cannot foresee all the environmental impacts of technology, let alone foresee how it will be used. The internet is prime example, invented by the military for fast, secure communications, it has become a worldwide tool for commerce, social interaction and political movements (as well as porn, online gambling and Facebook poking).
The proliferation of this technology has resulted in enormous data centres, communication networks and billions of end user devices (computers, iPads, iPhones) consuming vast amounts of energy. According to Yale, Since 1990, household energy consumption has been rising worldwide at 3.4 percent a year, in large part because of the rapid spread and increasing sophistication of electronic devices. At this rate, household energy consumption doubles every 20 years.
Lets compare the environmental impact of the production, transportation, use and disposal of paper versus electronic content. Remember, all electronic content is stored on and accessed through electronic devices. This is the elephant in the room.
The primary environmental impact of book production is the chopping down of trees to make paper. The production of computers and electronics on the other hand requires the mining of metals and minerals, the extraction of fossil fuels to make plastics and vast armies of migrant Chinese labor.
The electronic devices are primarily manufactured in China and exported to markets throughout Asia, North America and Europe. Being high value goods, electronics and computers cannot spend months depreciating in value while on cargo ships. In many cases, they are transported by the most polluting form of transportation – air freight. Books, not requiring the vast economies of scale and complex supply chains can be produced closer to their point of consumption.
Once a book has been produced, it no longer consumes energy or emits CO2. Online content however consumes energy till the end of time (when is the last time you deleted a photo from Facebook?). Vast amounts of data is stored in servers, and network bandwith is kept open so you can read the latest review of Iron Man 3 at a moment’s notice. All our photos, emails, and Facebook gibberish is stored in football field size data centres for eternity. All this equipment not only consumes massive amounts of energy, but also require chillers (air conditioning) to keep from malfunctioning. This equipment is kept running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year to make sure we can access all this gibberish in under 1 second.
Books, made of biodegradable paper, when no longer wanted can be easily disposed of with no environmental impact. (They can also be shared with no environmental impact). Electronic devices, which have an average lifespan of 3 years, contain toxic chemicals and metals that leach into our soils, pollute our air and poison our ground water when improperly disposed of. Do you know where your Galaxy 3S goes in its afterlife? Probably back to a poor village in China to be disassembled and have its valuable metals removed over an open pit fire.
The most damaging impact of this technology may be right before our eyes. Are we primarily using this technology to build stronger societies, educate ourselves, share knowledge and help others? Or are we using it to make ourselves stupider by playing Candy Crush, watching King of Thrones, or reading about Kim Kardashian? Does it allow us to numb our brains, distract us from pressing social and environmental issues and avoid the changes necessary to avert ecological disaster?